Ferraro Is Back, And So Is The Character Issue
By Bob Benenson, CQ Staff Writer
It did not take long for Geraldine A. Ferraro to know she was back in
the big leagues of political pugilism.
Within a day of announcing her candidacy for the Senate against
Republican three-term incumbent Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, Ferraro
once again found herself battling a fiercely denied but persistent
allegation that she and her husband, real estate investor John Zaccaro,
have been associated with persons involved in organized crime.
The New York Post reported Jan. 6 that D'Amato's camp was talking about
a birthday party for Ferraro during the 1996 Democratic National Convention
that was co-hosted by Laborers' International Union leader Arthur Coia, who
has been investigated for ties to organized crime.
Ferraro denounced the report, noting that Coia has not been proven
guilty of any wrongdoing. But the flareup quickly dispelled Ferraro's
stated hope that the character issue had played itself out.
Questions about Ferraro's family finances and personal connections had
overshadowed her Senate bid in 1992 (which ended in the primary) and soured
her national debut in 1984 as the first woman on the national ticket of a
The Coia incident also highlighted the overriding challenge facing
whomever the Democrats choose as their nominee: unseating the aggressive
and tireless D'Amato, who has already shown he will give no quarter in his
effort to stay in the Senate and keep his position as chairman of the
Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
D'Amato has raised more than $10 million and will surely double
that figure. Beyond that, he has armored himself with deft maneuvering on
several issues likely to be part of Ferraro's attack.
Months before Ferraro made her candidacy official, D'Amato produced a
television ad portraying her as too liberal for New Yorkers. He even bought
time to run the ad during the CNN political argument program "Crossfire,"
which featured Ferraro as the debating spokesperson for the left.
CNN has helped Ferraro remain in the public eye. But her announcement
was her first campaign plunge since the bitter primary of 1992, which she
lost by 1 percentage point to Robert Abrams (whom D'Amato defeated that
fall by a similar margin).
Nonetheless, she faced the banks of cameras and microphones again with
confidence and a familiar voice. "The issues that are facing this country
-- education, health care, the economy, jobs -- those are the things that
have to be addressed," said Ferraro, who has run well in polls against
D'Amato and against her two intraparty rivals.
Ferraro led D'Amato by 14 percentage points in one poll released in
December by the polling institute at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn.
She had even larger leads over Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer and New
York City Public Advocate Mark Green (D'Amato's 1986 challenger).
Schumer is a nine-term House member from the Brooklyn-based 9th
District, and Green is a potent vote-getter in New York City. Both say they
will not try to smear Ferraro's character, instead emphasizing their own
efforts in public office. The primary is Sept. 15.
Ferraro starts out well behind her rivals in campaign cash. But she
enters with advantages her Democratic opponents cannot match -- near
universal name recognition and an extraordinary mantle of history.
A rising star in the House after just three terms (1979-85), she was
chosen as running mate to Walter F. Mondale in his unsuccessful 1984
Democratic campaign against President Ronald Reagan. After her Senate
candidacy announcement, many commentators referred to her as a political
"icon," especially to women voters.
And if she can win the primary, Ferraro will face an incumbent who,
though seasoned and wily, bears political baggage of his own.
D'Amato has had to tread lightly on allegations about Ferraro's past:
During his first term, he faced similar rumors of organized crime links.
Nonetheless, he easily defeated Democrat Green, then a consumer activist,
in 1986. To win in 1992, he had to survive an Ethics Committee rebuke that
he had allowed his brother to use his Senate office for financial gain.
The colorful, outspoken and sometimes abrasive D'Amato has many
loyalists, but he has been plagued by mediocre-to-poor public approval
ratings ever since his upset of liberal Republican Jacob K. Javits in the
1980 primary and his plurality win in that fall's election.
As recently as June 1996, a Quinnipiac poll found that 58 percent of
New York respondents disapproved of D'Amato's performance as senator; 33
percent approved. But the December poll that showed D'Amato trailing
Ferraro nonetheless showed him with a 46-43 approval rating, the first
positive result he had achieved since 1994.
D'Amato has never lacked what New Yorkers like to call "chutzpah." His
audacious bid to unseat the ailing Javits in 1980 was all risk. Unknown
beyond his Long Island base, D'Amato offended some voters by making issues
of Javits' age and failing health.
But D'Amato has proved time and again that he is an agile politician
whose radar for constituents' interests earned him the enduring nickname of
"Senator Pothole." Lee Miringoff, who heads the polling unit at Marist
College in Poughkeepsie, New York, speculates that D'Amato hit his recent
nadir because he had moved away from his strong suit.
After winning his 1992 contest , D'Amato acted the political kingmaker,
taking control of the state GOP organization and ensuring an easy 1996
presidential primary victory for his Senate colleague, Bob Dole of
But his partisan efforts did not play well in a state where Democrats
lead Republicans in voter registration by a ratio of 3-to-2. Neither did
D'Amato's attack-dog style as chairman of the special Senate "Whitewater"
committee that probed the finances of President and Hillary Rodham
But Miringoff noted that D'Amato has since tried to come back from
"Senator Politics to Senator Pothole."
Back to Potholes
By late 1996, D'Amato was moving back to local issues to repair his
image -- and even to steal a little thunder from his Democratic
adversaries. He appeared in a series of homespun television ads backing a
state environmental bond issue. He is a cosponsor of a bill on health care
that is opposed by the conservative Republican leadership.
D'Amato also continues to make his mark on issues that strike a nerve
with New York voters. Already more popular with the state's large Jewish
constituency than most Republicans because of his strong support for
Israel, D'Amato has gained enormous publicity by intervening for individual
Holocaust victims and their survivors who are trying to free up family
assets held in Swiss banks during World War II.
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.